Manual handling

What is manual handling?

Manual handling involves lifting, carrying, lowering or otherwise carrying or moving a load by hand or bodily force. It is the most common cause of accidental injury in the workplace and the potential risks of manual handling affect nearly all members.

Accidents involving manual handling can have a long-lasting impact on personal and professional lives. Manual handling is not just an issue for those members who are required to lift and carry on a regular basis, as almost every job will require you to move items at some point.

Potential risks

One in three accidents at work are caused by manual handling. Many manual handling incidents cause damage to the back.

Every year, 300,000 people in the UK suffer from back pain due to manual handling accidents. Damage to the back, neck or spine can lead to extreme pain, temporary incapacity or permanent injury.

If you have any issues regarding back pain at work, contact your UNISON safety rep.

Read more about back pain

Employers’ responsibilities

Employers are required to fulfil a number of criteria to reduce the risk of manual handling accidents at work.

By law employers are required, among other things, to reduce risk of injury from manual handling operations to “the lowest level reasonably practicable”. Employers must also:

  • so far as reasonably practicable, avoid the need for employees to undertake manual handling which involves a risk of their being injured;carry out a manual handling risk assessment prior to any manual handling tasks;
  • provide training and information including specific information about the weight of the load and its heaviest side if its centre of gravity is not positioned centrally the equipment and techniques to be used when carrying out a manual handling tasks;
  • assess the layout, structure or nature of the work and the individual capability of staff to reduce manual handling risks;
  • retain accurate reports on any previous notifiable manual handling incidents and accidents;
  • give equal consideration to those working away from the employer’s premises.

Members’ responsibilities

While employers are obliged to provide adequate facilities, equipment and training for members to safely fulfil their work-related tasks, members have a responsibility to use the information and resources given to them.

You are required by Manual Handling Operations Regulations to make use of equipment and resources provided by the employer, in accordance with the training given. This also applies to work done away from the employer’s premises.

What your UNISON rep can do

The HSE guidelines on manual handling advise a number of pro-active steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of manual handling incidents at work.

These guidelines suggest that employers encourage UNISON safety reps and committees to be involved in identifying, assessing and resolving manual handling issues.

Importantly, UNISON reps can also help you resolve any issues you have, should you feel unsure about any manual handling task or situation.

It is important to remember that prevention is better than cure, so if you have spoken to your employer, and the issue has not been resolved, speak to your UNISON safety rep prior to starting any manual handling task that you are concerned about.

Key facts
  • You should not be asked to engage in lifting and carrying heavy or large loads without proper training.
  • Do not start a manual handling task if you feel unsafe, or see potential risk to yourself or people around you.
  • Speak to your UNISON safety rep if you have spoken to your employer but still have unresolved manual handling issues.
  • Your employer has a responsibility to minimise risk of harm to you while at work.


Manual handling

  • What does “reduce the risk of injury to the lowest level reasonably practicable” mean?

    This is a term used in health and safety legislation that means that an employer must identify and resolve any risk in the workplace, wherever it is realistic to do so.

    Remember, it is illegal for your employer to refuse to resolve a health and safety issue because of cost, unless the cost involved compared to the risk involved renders the taking of those steps not reasonably practicable.

  • What if I am working outside of my usual workplace?

    Your health and safety rights are the same, even if you are working away from the employer’s premises. Employers have the same responsibility to reduce the risks of manual handling.

  • What if I have an existing a back problem?

    Employers are still required to perform risk assessments and put in place reasonable measures to reduce that risk, regardless of your health. If you are returning to work after a period of absence due to back pain, remain in constant contact with your employer to ensure that your health is not made worse by work.

    If your back pain has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, your employer must make reasonable adjustments to the workplace in accordance with the Equality Act.

  • What should I reasonably lift?

    There are no legal limits, but regulations require the risk assessment to take into account the task, the load, working environment, individual capability and any other factors such as the impact of any personal protective equipment or clothing on movement or posture.